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Measuring Persistence

Doctoral student José Palma explores factors that keep students in school

José Palma remembers his first day in community college, struggling to register for classes. He had come to Worthington, Minnesota, with his uncle and knew almost no English. The weeks that followed didn’t seem much better.

“I wanted to quit school every single day,” Palma says now with a smile, shaking his head.

He made friends, but many dropped out when their English improved and they got jobs. Palma stayed in school. Soon he knew that, for him, two years would not be enough. He transferred to the University of Minnesota in computer science. Then he took an introductory psychology class.

“Every part of that class was interesting to me—social psychology, perception, personality,” Palma says. He changed his major and graduated with a B.A. in psychology. After working in retail for a while he found a job in the St. Paul Public Schools as a bilingual assistant.

That’s where he met educational psychology professor Michael Rodriguez, an expert on the psychometrics of tests. Rodriguez soon recruited Palma to come back to the U for graduate school.

“There are only a handful of Spanish-speaking measurement specialists worldwide,” says Rodriguez. “I get requests to work on projects in Spanish multiple times a year and have to turn them down.”

This fall Palma will be a third-year doctoral student in quantitative measurement. Most of his work so far has been on “developmental assets,” he explains, “the building blocks that children and young people need to become a better person.” Those assets help them to succeed, thrive, and develop more sustainable academic goals. Palma focuses on developmental assets of Latino students and of students who qualify for special education.

One of his goals is to develop an assessment for very young children whose first language is not English, a tool that can determine which of their mistakes are due to limited English and which are due to learning disabilities. He’s also trying to develop accessible versions of standardized tests.

“We need to provide the same tests but make them more accessible,” Palma says, “so when a student approaches the test, they do it in an equivalent state.”

One of his continuing interests is exploring the factors that cause students to stay in school. He remembers his community-college friends who dropped out when they got jobs.

“I found that upsetting, yet interesting,” he says.

Now he has a chance to influence factors that will keep more students in school.

“If you want a kid to do well in school,” he explains, “you have to make sure you take into account not only the curriculum and the teacher but also the school climate and the environment where the student lives—family and community.”

Palma’s soft-spoken, easy-going manner belies a tireless concentration and commitment. With a three-year break between his B.A. and graduate school, he says it took him awhile to get to know himself as a student again and figure out things such as when and how he studied best. Turning his research eye on himself, he learned that he works best in groups and is usually in a study room with other students by 10 a.m.

In addition to his coursework, Palma works a research assistant at the U’s Center for Early Education and Development and has helped to analyze Minnesota State Survey results. For the second summer in a row, he will accompany Rodriguez to train personnel in Guatemala’s ministry of education, something he has found enormously meaningful.

Palma enjoys service. He and some friends run a nonprofit in which they recondition old computers, load them with educational software, donate and install them for new refugee families, and make follow-up visits to fix problems. He loves to see people’s faces light up as they gain access to learning tools for the first time.

“In my hometown in Mexico, we didn’t even have a library,” he says. Palma also makes time to play soccer twice a week, and right now he’s training for a marathon.

“After two years in graduate school, I still feel like a little kid,” he says. “I really enjoy it—the psychology part and the statistics part, both.” But when a prospective student recently asked how many hours he studies, he replied that he was the wrong person to ask.

“Grad school is a lifestyle,” he says with a grin. “You study when it comes to you, and you study when it doesn’t come to you. The whole idea is to make peace with that.”

Read more about the Department of Educational Psychology.

Story by  Gayla Marty| July 2012

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